Every employer in B.C. is now required to develop a COVID-19 safety plan for the workplace, by order of the provincial government last Friday, in an effort to prevent exposure to the virus among employees and customers.
Chris Back, director of industry and labour services at WorkSafeBC, tackled some of the finer points of the process Tuesday during a “digital town hall” hosted by the Surrey Board of Trade, via Zoom.
Among challenges business are facing is to ensure a distance of at least two metres, or six feet, is maintained between employees, controlling the frequency and volume of customers or clients coming into the work space, controlling how long people engaging with one another and keeping an eye on regular contact with shared surfaces, such lights switches, door handles and perhaps keyboards.
WorkSafeBC offers on its website a template for a six-point safety plan to help employers develop their plan. These include assessing risks at your workplace, implementing protocols to reduce risks, developing policies, developing communication plans and training, monitoring your workplace and updating your plans as necessary, and assessing and addressing risks from resuming operations.
“You do not need to have a formal plan in place to begin operation,” Back said. “But you are expected to develop it while you are protecting the safety of your workers. You do need to know how you’re protecting the safety of your workers before you can open your doors.”
By order of Provincial Health Officer, he said, businesses must post a copy of their COVID-19 safety plan on their website and at the workplace so it is readily available for workers, other people attending to provide services and to the general public.
“An important note though is you are not required to submit your place to WorkSafeBC for approval before you can open your doors,” he said. “However, if an officer does come by your work and does an inspection you will be asked to provide them with a copy of that plan and be expected to be able to produce that plan, or there is a possibility that an order could be written.”
Back noted it’s important for employers to involve their staff in the process of assessing what activities, situations and tasks constitute an increased risk that the virus, if present, could be transmitted.
“You want to ensure you involve frontline workers, supervisors, joint committee worker representatives in that conversation,” he said. “It’s very important that this is a joint effort – that you are including your workers as you are putting together your plan. And you want to consider questions like where do people congregate, where is the possibility of people coming together and not being able to maintain that two metres of distance, what job tasks require workers to come into close proximity with one another or members of the public, the tools and machinery people come into contact with.”
Employers with 20 or more workers are required to have a joint official safety committee and those with between nine and 19 workers are required to have a worker representative. Those with less than nine workers must still engage with their employees in a “structured manner” to address COVID-19 related safety issues.
“It is extremely important that you are including your workers throughout this process,” he said.
Back noted that workers have a right to report hazards and refuse unsafe work.
They should also take care outside work hours to avoid situations where they might pick up an infection and bring it back to the job site.
While COVID-19 of course constitutes a physical threat, Back advises employers to also consider the psychological impact the pandemic is having on employees.
“COVID has impacted everyone, in every way that we live and we work, everything to do with our livelihoods, and that impacts people in different ways. It can affect people, increase anxiety and stress, uncertainty about how this pandemic is going to impact them, and what the future might hold,” Back noted. “So it’s really important to remember that mental health is just as important as physical health and employers should take measures to support mental well-being and help for their workers.”
“This is something that you do need to pay attention to,” he said. “Please don’t forget about the psychological health and safety of your workers as we’re going through this.”